Uncooked Food Moves Mainstream and Upscale

Dear Readers, I was misquoted in the article below. I did not say that cooked food was toxic and had no nutrients in it. I said that the nutrients were greatly diminished by cooking and also that the food was harder to digest and assimilate in this altered state. I also tried to explain that a person can ascertain the real effects of cooked food ONLY after they have been on a raw diet for a while and then try to eat cooked food again. At that time they will clearly feel the effects of the lower energy that cooked food provides to the body. I leave it to the experimenter to determine whether that means the food is toxic or not.


October 22, 2003

Uncooked Food Moves Mainstream and Upscale
By Tania Padgett

Six years ago, David Norman, a real estate developer, was battling a weight problem, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol and hair loss.

Norman’s health problems were particularly frustrating because he didn’t smoke, drank alcohol only occasionally and he ate a vegan diet, avoiding meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products.

Desperate, Norman decided to try an even more restrictive diet, one consisting mostly of fresh fruits, uncooked vegetables, nuts and grains made edible with soaking. Within a year, he shed 35 pounds and was able to toss out his blood pressure and cholesterol medications. His hair stopped falling out, he said, and even his poor eyesight improved.

“My doctor advised me against doing this diet,” said Norman, who hails from Texas. “But when my blood tests came back normal, he said, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing.'”

Move over, South Beach Diet and Atkins. The latest diet may not be hot, but it’s gathering steam. As more people become health conscious, many are turning to the raw or living foods diet that advocates eating mostly fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains, but eating them uncooked. The diet also has become more popular as more celebrities endorse it and gourmet chefs, Charlie Trotter for one, add an epicurean flourish to it.

But just as the diet is taking off, allegations that it is unhealthful and in some cases dangerous also are growing. Dietitians argue that the diet, which allows no meat or meat byproducts such as eggs or dairy, is too low in protein, a much-needed building block for the human body.

Raw foodists argue that the diet, or even the more healthful lifestyle that often results, has healing and rejuvenating benefits. Many people who go on the diet do so because they don’t feel well or have illnesses that haven’t responded well to traditional medicines. Uncooked fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains have more nutrients and digestion-aiding enzymes than cooked food, adherents say. Raw foodists spurn any food that has been heated beyond 116 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature at which most enzymes are said to be destroyed.

Susan Pensack, a 48-year-old Manhattan resident and an editor at Columbia University Press, said symptoms from a thyroid problem disappeared once she went raw four years ago. Susan Halperin, an opera singer from Manhattan, said a nagging sinus condition and severe allergies cleared up shortly after she embarked on a raw food lifestyle 19 months ago. A Long Island housewife with breast cancer who wished to remain anonymous said her condition improved dramatically after spending two months at a spa that promotes raw foods and juices. Others, particularly celebrities and models, rave about speedy weight loss, more youthful-looking appearance and increased energy levels after going on the diet.

“Cooked food is toxic,” said Rhio, a longtime raw foodist who has written a book on the subject, “Hooked on Raw” (Beso Entertainment), and who operates raw foodinfo.com, an informational Web site. “There are no enzymes or nutrients in it, which is why people get so sick.”

But living the raw foods lifestyle is not easy. The diet is one of the strictest around. Most adherents advocate buying the pricier organic fruits, vegetables or bottled water to avoid pesticides. Food preparation – particularly without a blender, juicer or high-powered mixer – can be long and arduous, because most raw food recipes demand constant cutting, chopping and blending of fruits, vegetables and nuts. Also going out to most restaurants, even vegetarian ones, can be difficult since most menu selections are cooked or have some meat, dairy or milk in them.

Norman said that when he started the diet, he “lost some friends” because his eating habits became “annoying.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that dieters will be subject to homemade meals of bland, unappetizing foods. In fact, one reason for the diet’s popularity is the explosion of living foods cookbooks, restaurants, Web sites and packaged raw food products, particularly in California and now New York.

“Raw food has definitely been going mainstream,” said David Wolfe, who operates rawfood.com, which hawks organic foods, supplements and books. “Hits to my site have increased enormously in the last year; raw food restaurants are popping up everywhere and it seems as if everyone is writing a raw book.”

Indeed. Six months ago Charlie Trotter, one of the country’s foremost chefs, began offering raw food delicacies such as unheated shiitake mushroom soup with lime radish and winged beans (a tropical legume) and portobello mushroom pavé with white asparagus vinaigrette at his Chicago restaurant. His latest book, “Raw,” published by Ten Speed Press and co-authored with California raw food chef Roxanne Klein, will be out in November. Actor Woody Harrelson and raw food chef Renee Loux Underkoffler’s book, “Living Cuisine: The Art and Spirit of Raw Foods” (Avery Penguin Putnam), will be released in December, and supermodel Carol Alt also is working on a book for publisher Clarkson Potter, due out next year.

In the past year, the raw food movement in New York has gained momentum. The city’s five exclusively raw food restaurants often are filled to capacity at dinnertime. More vegetarian restaurants are getting the hint and adding raw dishes. And, in the past six months, the raw food gourmet class at Manhattan’s Natural Gourmet Institute for Food and Health has become so crowded that students had to be turned away, said Jenny Matthau, school president and director of chef training.

At Dr. B. Well Naturally, a Plainview health food store, Raweos, a raw food cookie, and Luscious Lemon Swirl cake are fast sellers, owner Peter Roth said.

The raw food or living food diet has been around since the 1950s, when Ann Wigmore, a self-taught nutritionist, began popularizing it through her health institute. But the diet really didn’t take off until the late 1990s, when high-powered chefs and celebrities rediscovered the diet and began singing its praises.

Felicia Watkis, a raw food caterer who has prepared food for jazz musician Wynton Marsalis and Essence magazine editorial director Susan Taylor, said it’s important for food to look and taste good.

“Raw food meals really didn’t taste too good, until gourmet chefs started coming into the picture,” said Watkis. “Most people enjoy it now because we try very hard to replicate the taste and textures of dishes that people love.”

At Quintessence, a raw foods restaurant with three locations in Manhattan, owners Dan Hoyt and and Tolentin Chan worked to develop a menu that duplicated the flavors and textures of popular foods. Flavorful burritos are created out of crunchy fresh cabbage leaves and crammed with nut butters, olives and almond creams; spaghetti is made from thin strips of yellow squash; and lasagna is created out of eggplant and spices.

Despite the claims of raw foods enthusiasts, many doctors and dietitians scoff at it. Katherine Tallmadge, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, said she thinks the diet is “dangerous,” particularly for pregnant women, children, the elderly or people with compromised immune systems. “The diet is protein-deficient and nutrient-poor,” said Tallmadge, who also is author of “Diet Simple” (Lifeline), a book promoting weight loss by making only a few changes to the average diet. “The idea that cooked food is toxic is absurd. There is absolutely no science to back that up.”

Tallmadge is not alone in her assessment. Five months ago, Florida authorities said the death of 5-month-old Woyah Andressohn probably was the result of malnutrition brought on by a raw food diet. Investigators also found that Andressohn’s four brothers and sisters, who also were allegedly on the diet, were severely malnourished.

The news brought a wave of anti-raw foodists, including doctors and chemists who said the science behind raw food diets was specious. Dietitians argue that the body produces enough enzymes that the extra enzymes raw foodists insist the body needs are unnecessary. They also argue that cooking helps kill off many germs and that uncooked foods can be breeding grounds for bacteria.

But many raw food enthusiasts maintain that any initial discomfort of the diet is worth the tremendous health benefits. And that eventually many people become huge supporters of the lifestyle.

In two weeks, Norman, with the help of a raw food chef, is opening Bonobos, a gourmet raw food restaurant

“I have so much energy,” said Norman. “Typically, after my friends and I go out to eat, they are too tired to do anything afterward. But me? I’m raring to go.”


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